There have always been two James Blakes. There’s the one that’s been behind the boards for a lot of famous people (Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, to name a few), pumping their songs full of a welcome gravitas. And then there’s the Blake that’s been present on his solo albums, something of a forlorn electronic balladeer with an interior worldview that lends itself to music that often feels like it’s barely there. It’s occasionally been difficult to reconcile these two figures — try to picture Blake turning up to something as visceral as “ELEMENT” at his famously subdued live sets — but Assume Form, Blake’s fourth album, is the first that really bridges the gap between those two sides, opening up his sound in a way that makes it seem like he’s having fun and pushing his chilly electronic minimalism forward in exciting new directions.
He does this mostly by ceding control. In the past, even when he’s had someone helping him out — like Rick Rubin did on The Colour In Anything — his albums have felt like entire worlds unto themselves. Blake’s lost in his own head and he can’t get out. But on Assume Form, he’s surrounded by people — in his own life, where he sings about making an effort to be available to everyone around him, and on the guest-heavy tracklist. Blake has talked before about creating a collaboration-heavy album, calling in favors from all the notable artists he’s worked with, and while Assume Form still has long stretches where it’s only Blake, it comes closest to that goal.
There’s an invigorating appearance by André 3000, who here sounds just as excited as he did when he popped up on “Solo (Reprise)” three years ago, a track that Blake also produced. He co-produced the album with Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker, and Oneohtrix Point Never shows up on “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow.” Blake makes room for Metro Boomin on two songs, and he lets Travis Scott and Moses Sumney croon on each of them. Rosalía, fresh off the stunning El Mal Querer, wields an incredible power on “Barefoot In The Park,” a duet with Blake that could even get radio play if given the right push.
It seems like Blake is over leaving his best cuts for others. There’s a whole new level of accessibility on Assume Form that has rarely been on his solo albums before. His other songs aren’t the sort of stuff that just reaches a mass audience on their own — they get placed on movie and TV soundtracks, which in turn makes them popular. But the songs on Assume Form have a wider appeal, in the way that you always felt Blake could achieve outside of the confines of his own material.
Blake first came onto the scene making galaxy brain post-dubstep music. His first album melded those experimental tendencies with confessional singer-songwriter fare which felt both overwhelmingly intimate and also oddly removed. His next two albums saw him growing outwards, adopting more traditional pop structure while also staying out of the frame. He smoothed his abstractions into pure soul, and 2016’s The Colour In Anything was his clearest statement of intent yet, but you’d be forgiven if you missed it considering its indulgent runtime.
But Assume Form is concise and concentrated and assured. The textures that Blake is working with are more varied than ever. There’s very few of your typical Blake piano ballads here; instead, these songs are jumpy and restless and always doubling back on themselves. He’s always had a knack of making curious production choices that elevate a song from good to great, and there’s a lot of those here — the creaking distorted guitar on “Where’s The Catch,” the spoken word poetry sample on the opening home-recorded title track, how “I’ll Come Too” sounds like it’s coming out of a Disney music box. Blake’s songs occasionally bleed together, but here he avoids that by grounding each one in these unique twists of form.
It also helps that Blake just seems happier here than he has in a long time. Last year, he posted a note about he he hated being described as “sad boy” music. The note contained a couple oddities — like, how women aren’t questioned when “discussing the things they are struggling with” (what, dude?) — but the sentiment was clear and, if you’ve been following his music, it reflected a valid struggle that Blake has faced with his mental health. Over the years, his music has wrestled with depression and the anxieties that stem from that in a muted palate. On Assume Form, he makes that struggle even more apparent but also finds a way to rise above it.
And the way out, for Blake at least, is love. To get tabloid-y for a moment: Blake has settled into a relationship with Jameela Jamil — also known as Tahani from The Good Place — and judging by the songs on Assume Form, it’s going quite well. Assume Form is a love album, and it’s gooey and corny and heartwarmingly sincere. “While I haven’t been living until now/ Even doing nothing I am making the most of somehow/ And the credit goes to her/ As the bad days become rare/ Gotta keep her in my sights/ Gotta keep her in my life,” he sings on one track. Blake is head-over-heels, and he’s channeling all of the obsessive energy he used to use to reflect on his own mood directly onto her. It’s sweet, and it makes for some great, great songs.
Take “Power On”: It’s a litany of how Blake has been saved by love, told in a drawled rhythm. “Have you ever coexisted so easily?” Blake asks in a gospel chorus aside, breaking up that methodical pace. “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone/ Let’s go home finally.” It’s about giving over to a force bigger than yourself — the connection between two people. Blake is sometimes comical in his obsession: “Oh, you’re going to New York/ I’m going there, why don’t I come with you?” he sings on one. “Oh you’ve changed to LA/ I’m going there, I could go too.” But it just speaks to the intense devotion that Blake feels has changed him irreversibly.
The same doubts and insecurities that have plagued Blake through three albums are still there on his fourth, but they’re abated by this stalwart love. “Are you in love?” he asks on one song where he doubts the happiness he’s feeling. “Do your best impression for me/ I try my hardest for you.” There’s a through-line of contentment on Assume Form that has eluded Blake before, and there’s a determination to continually do better. “I will assume form/ I leave the ether,” Blake sings on the title track. “I will be touchable by her/ I will be reachable.”
With each successive album, Blake has gotten closer and closer to the definition he has so clearly craved, and with Assume Form he’s declaring that he’s finally found it. And while that definition might flicker in and out from day to day, Blake has found his final configuration in another, and it sounds glorious.
Assume Form is out 1/18 via Republic/Polydor.